Baring the Burden

Harm Coolen and Merijn Scholte of Weval

The Weight, the latest album by Dutch duo Weval, is a surprising record. Although released on Kompakt, a label famous for interesting elaborations on the microhouse and minimal techno dance genres, it seems only intermittently interested in maintaining a DJ-friendly attitude. While “Heaven, Listen” builds to a readily danceable rhythm, slower tracks like “False State of Mind” feel more like meta-dance.[MORE] They invoke different subgenres of electronic dance music, without fully committing to any of them.

The sonic flourishes that distinguish other Kompakt records from their more functional 4/4 brethren have been amplified to the point where beat patterns feel like another form of ornamentation rather than the music’s very reason for being. Even as its tracks diverge from each other and subdivide internally, a thread of coherent logic holds the album together. Harm Coolen and Merijn Scholte clearly know what they are doing and find consistently interesting ways of doing it. But what is that, exactly?

As Coolen and Scholte recently explained to Magnetic Magazine, the slipperiness of pronouns is to their liking: “We have no idea to describe it and we also want that it’s hard to describe.” There is plenty of cerebral dance music out there. But Weval seem less interested in making us wonder what kind of dance music we’re listening to than whether we’re listening to dance music at all.

This quality recalls the work of Burial, which used dubstep beats to pose questions about the distinction between music and ambient sound. Burial didn’t repudiate dance culture so much as direct our attention to the broader social context in which it is situated. Although less focused on field recordings, Weval seems intent on inspiring similar reflections. Indeed, The Weight deploys keening yet blurry vocals that strongly recall Burial’s best-known tracks, suggesting that the parallel is consciously pursued.

On the album’s second track “Roll Together”, high-pitched acapella vocals següe into the sort of burbling, bass-deprived rhythms made popular in the late 1990s, when American record labels and publicists tried to sell listeners reluctant to go out dancing on the virtues of “electronica”. Then the beats stop for a good while, reinforcing the impression that this is music better appreciated in the privacy of one’s own home than out on the dance floor. And the track that follows, “Are You Even Real” continues making the point. There’s a pulse, but one that is distinctly human-scaled.

While The Weight may have been made primarily with computers, it deftly avoids sounding too computerized. The penultimate track “Heartbreak Television” is a fine example. Beginning with slow, wavering synths that are soon joined by the tinny drum machine patter of a children’s toy, it crescendos to the sort of understated distortion that once testified to the limits of machine music before settling back into a languid dub groove that sounds like it’s coming to us through a pool of water. A male voice periodically tumbles into the mix, muddied just enough so that words can be made out, but not whole sentences, as if we were on the other end of a mobile phone call on the verge of being dropped.

“Look Around” imparts a more propulsive aspect to this general approach, wedding a snare-heavy drum pattern to sinewy synth arpeggios with a distinctly retro feel. Like Burial’s work, it can be crammed into the dubstep box, but only if we push hard and don’t mind a little excess material threatening to pop out along the edges.

That’s a good way of thinking about The Weight as a whole. As Coolen and Scholte put it, “Labels aren’t really our thing, but we really won’t mind if people put it in a certain kind of category, or make one up.” If the album has a musical weakness, it may be that this resistance to classification sometimes takes on a life of its own, as if playing with listener’s expectations were more important than the finished product.

But that cultivated ambiguity could also be a political strength. The more one listens to The Weight, the more prominent its references to the electronic dance music of the 1990s become. If, as Coolen and Scholte suggest, the pressures of life outside the recording studio, it is fair to inquire into the deeper significance of that burden. Although they no doubt had personal difficulties in mind, it’s also hard to imagine the personal not being shadowed by the political right now.

The Europe in which EDM developed is very different from the one that exists right now. Back then, the digital era that music heralded was rich with sunny possibility. Today, much of that promise has given way to disappointment, as the future everyone was looking forward during the build-up to a single currency has turned into a reprisal, however ironic, of one of the continent’s darkest periods. The Weight might not communicate that realization directly, yet its textures seem haunted by it. While its indistinct vocals may be sonically compelling, they also testify to the difficult of expressing feelings clearly at a time when rage has displaced hope in Europe’s dominant structure of feeling.

Maybe that’s why The Weight doesn’t simply reference the sounds of electronic dance music of the 1990s, but actively pines for that era. This isn’t simple nostalgia fare. Even if the relationship between the music’s beats and its extra-rhythmic ornamentation conjures the heady days of “electronica”, when such diverse acts as Cornelius, Mouse on Mars, Pole, and Kompakt co-founder Wolfgang Voigt’s own Gas were pushing elements of dance sound to the very limits of danceability, it always does so through the distorting veil of melancholy.

Most of the tracks on The Weight begin and end in a state of precarity. Sounds wobble. Structures fade in and out of audibility. Language itself is warped to the point of semantic breakdown. Although the record like it was made with supreme confidence, it testifies to a lack of it. We know where the world we love has been, but not where it’s headed. Weval refracts that uncertainty into slivers of melancholy beauty.

Photograph courtesy of Weval. All rights reserved.